Marketing a political leader

Philip Kotler is to marketing professionals what Peter Drucker was to management gurus. That is why his decision to bestow an award in his name to Narendra Modi can best be described as odd. So odd, in fact, that it prompted media houses to investigate. The Wire came up with a carefully-researched piece linking the award to a Saudi government-owned petrochemical group with a unit in Gujarat that is hoping to expand its presence in India. And it turned out, two of the jury members, ad industry veteran Walter Vieira and Gautam Mahajan, did not take part in the judging process for the award.


Eventually, the issue generated enough controversy to compel Mr Kotler to issue a clarification via an “interview” in The Marketing Journal, to its editor Christian Sarkar. His answer to the question on who exemplifies model political leadership by his definition deserves some space (actually, the whole interview from about the third question onwards has an entertainment value that neither Mr Kotler nor Mr Sarkar must suspect). 


He said: “The concept underlying the award is to honor a major public leader who has given new life to democracy and economic growth in that nation.  A Kotler Leadership Award leader is one who: 
  • believes in representative government and in social justice.
  • believes that a good society will build a healthy business climate.
  • encourages businesses to practice the triple bottom line, namely to balance profits, people, and the planet in their deliberations.
  • sincerely and wholeheartedly works for the Common Good.
 On these criteria, Prime Minister Modi stood the highest. He has improved his country’s image and visibility on the global stage. A committee in the WMS voted on possible leaders given the above criteria.” He does not identify, nor is he asked to, name the other leaders in contention. Then came the emphatic addendum: “The final decision was mine.” (italics in original).


All this stuff speaks directly to Mr Modi, who revels in corporate phraseology (such as the leader of the nation being the “brand guardian of the nation”) and, like Chandrababu Naidu, fancies himself a CEO-type politician. The hazards of this approach can be seen in Donald Trump, who claims his business acumen gives him a special insight into running the world’s largest economy. 


A cursory reading of the four Kotlerian criteria reveals not just the weakness of the marketing guru’s arguments but the hazards of linking corporate standards of judgement to politics and politicians. More so when the exercise is applied to an insanely complex and diverse polity such as India. The four points Mr Kotler lists above are boilerplate attributes to which any politician in a functioning democracy would lay claim. Equally, in the rowdy, argumentative political theatre that is India, all four points could be disputed with just as much facility.


Let’s consider point four first: “Sincerely and wholeheartedly works for the Common Good”. At the time of writing, there is a whole raft of people who may dispute that: farmers, for instance; small and medium enterprises; those who lost jobs during demonetisation, the families of those who were lynched; the Muslim community; Dalits.


Or how about: “Believes that a good society will build a healthy business climate”? Many businesspeople may agree with that judgement, but what with demonetisation, the hurried rollout of the Goods and Services Tax and rising import tariffs, just as many may not.


As for “encourages businesses to practice the triple bottom line, namely to balance profits, people, and the planet in their deliberations”, the evidence that Mr Modi has exhorted corporations thus is slim. In fact, the former government, with its absurd mandate on corporate social responsibility spending, would probably qualify better on this count. And it was former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who urged senior managements to cut back on their pay and perks, a statement that earned him no kudos from the business community. 


Also, Mr Kotler’s observation that Mr Modi “has improved his country’s image and visibility on the global stage” is open to question. Suppressed figures on the latest Foreign Direct Investment suggest quite the opposite. Is he referring to World Yoga Day, maybe? Or the rock-concert-style turnouts by an energetically mobilised NRI fan club in his early days? All of this ignores Dr Singh’s carefully negotiated nuclear deal with George Bush, which played a far bigger role in bringing India in from the global cold. 


To be strictly fair to Mr Modi, no other national Indian politician would qualify for the award on any criterion listed by Mr Kotler either. But given the yardsticks applied to the first one, you really wonder who will win the second Philip Kotler Presidential Award.

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